COCONUT PALMS ON remote Queensland beaches may bring smiles to tourists, but there are reasons to dislike them. They are not, as many people suppose, native trees, but introduced weeds that displace native rainforest and promote erosion.
Captain Cook, Flinders and other early mariners saw no coconut palms on Australia’s shores. The scientists on their ships collected and wrote about a great many trees but did not mention these. All the coconuts along the coast today are planted or descended from planted trees. This they show by having very large nuts, identifying them as cultivated niu vai varieties.
Like the wild olives smothering the Adelaide Hills, and the pigs in our wetlands and forests, feral coconuts should be kept in check. When one palm is planted the nuts it drops germinate freely if they go uneaten. The expanding grove pushes out native vegetation, which is crushed by old falling fronds. During storms, coconut groves afford less protection from storm surges than tangled rainforest trees, and sand escapes between the trunks. To make matters worse the nuts are being conveyed north by currents to sprout on very remote shores, where they are displacing rare littoral forests.
One of the few remaining sites of wild coconuts at Dolly Beach on Christmas Island. (Image: Tim Low)
In some parts of north Queensland coconut trees are actively removed from important habitats. The wishes of tourists can be accommodated by keeping some coconuts at popular beaches, while keeping them out of national parks. The hazards posed by falling nuts provide another reason to limit them. But coconut removal is sometimes controversial, with tourist operators often protective about them, though there is nothing dinky di Australian about a coconut tree – tropical beaches everywhere have them.
Surprising as it may seem, the wild form of the coconut is now so rare it could be lost through hybridisation. In recent decades wild-type coconuts have been reported from only a few remote islands – in the Philippines, Kiribatu, Tuvalu and Australia’s Indian Ocean territories. Small and remote Dolly Beach on Christmas Island has a dense stand of palms with remarkably tall thin trunks and small nuts encased in very long husks. They are very different from the coconuts planted elsewhere on the island, which have thicker trunks and rounder husks. One of the Cocos-Keeling islands also has wild-type coconuts.
Northern Australia has many natural wonders such as the cassowary, frilled lizard and Cairns birdwing butterfly. Coconuts have come to symbolise tropical paradise, but they shouldn’t be promoted as symbols of the Queensland tropics. The Queensland fan palm (Licuala ramsayi), an icon in the Daintree area, is a better choice, and so is the beautiful Calophyllum tree (Calophyllum inophyllum) which graces many of our pristine shores.